At this time last year, mainstream NBA playoff coverage was unbearable.
Media outlets seemed to focus less on actual play on the court than what was going on inside the head of LeBron James. It was as if the industry had turned from sports reporters into a legion of armchair Ph.D's trying to psychoanalyze a man they barely knew.
When the 61-win Cleveland Cavaliers got blown out by the Boston Celtics nearly three years ago in Game 5 of the conference semifinals, the questions began pouring in: Is LeBron a choke artist? Can he overcome adversity? Does he have what it takes to win a title?
The speculation seemed valid based on his questionable performance in that 32-point trouncing, where James shot 3-of-14 and didn't make a field goal in the entire first half. It wasn't even his poor play that was the most off-putting; he simply looked disengaged, without the will to win that the basketball world has come to expect from its best players.
The firestorm only got worse after James displayed some similarly puzzling tendencies during the 2011 NBA Finals, as his new team, the Miami Heat, lost to the Dallas Mavericks. Though he did disappear for some stretches, the media made it sound like LeBron personally lost the series as opposed to it being won by a historic run from Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks.
Now, all of those perceptions are no more.
The Heat, and James, vanquished those mind-numbing discussions by winning the championship last year in convincing fashion. James punctuated his ability to come through when it mattered most with a game for the ages in Boston. In a win-or-go-home Game 6 on the opponent's court, he scored 45 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out five assists—numbers that don't even capture how marvelously he orchestrated the game.
In a way, that night birthed a new stigma as it helped to destroy an old one.
Now, if the Heat don't win this year's championship—and every championship for the next two to three years—people will wonder why LeBron wasn't able to recapture that brilliance. They will ask why this soon-to-be four-time MVP came up short. They again might start to chirp that he is too mentally weak to get it done.
The Heat's lone title will be seen as a fluke.
People will continue to point to a suspect late no-call on a potential game-tying shot from Kevin Durant in Game 2 of the 2012 Finals that could have put the Oklahoma City Thunder up two games to none and swung the series. People will note that Miami didn't have to contend with a dominant Chicago Bulls team that lost Derrick Rose to injury in the first game of the postseason.
If the Heat—a team that won 27 straight regular-season games and became just the 13th team in league history to win 66 games—come up short this season, the questions will resurface.
With Oklahoma City still adjusting to life without James Harden and the San Antonio Spurs battling health concerns, everyone expects Miami to win. It's as though the world has forgotten how difficult it is to repeat as NBA champion.
Tim Duncan has never done it. Larry Bird never did it, either. A string of back-to-back title winners starting in the late 1980s (Magic Johnson's Lakers, Isiah Thomas' Pistons, Michael Jordan's Bulls, Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets) makes it easy to forget just how rare the feat has been historically.
Now? We just expect it. And with his legacy at stake, LeBron better deliver.
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